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Helping clients deal with suffering and trauma takes a lot of emotional energy, leading many lawyers to feel as if they have no more empathy left to give. We explain why the profession is at greater risk of compassion fatigue and how to manage the risk.

Being a lawyer can sap a lot of emotional energy. You’re often privy to sensitive and distressing information, especially if you work in family or criminal law, or in community settings. It can take a big toll on even the most empathetic professional and deplete your compassion reserve.

Signs of detachment, insensitivity and emotional callousness are indicative of what psychologists call “compassion fatigue”.

“It’s a reduced capacity to bear the suffering of clients or service users in work situations,” explains James Lucas from Deakin University’s Faculty of Health.

Out of empathy

Nursing researcher Carla Joinson coined the term compassion fatigue in 1992 when she noticed nurses dealing with frequent heartache had lost their ability to nurture.

“Typical symptoms include diminution of empathy indicated by reduced tolerance for strong emotions in clients and a growing detachment from their experiences,” says Dr Colin James, a solicitor and senior lecturer at ANU College of Law. He says a gradual erosion of physical and emotional resources and increasing tiredness are also common. The end result is reduced efficacy at work, increased cynicism and a failure to care.

Healthcare professionals, social workers, psychologists and anyone working in helping professions are susceptible to compassion fatigue. And because of exposure to clients’ trauma, grief and loss, so too are lawyers.

“When clients outline in detail the events that led to their seeing a lawyer, lawyers will empathically resonate with the client’s story,” says Lucas, who is also a mental health social worker.

“Lawyers and the rest of us in helping professions want to reduce clients’ pain, so we develop compassion towards them. This process requires an enormous amount of personal energy.”

Compassion fatigue is likely common in areas of practice involving personal suffering and trauma, including domestic violence, child abuse, refugee advocacy, victims of crime, criminal prosecution and defence, homelessness and First Nations work, says Dr James.

“Many of these areas depend on government funding and are typically under-resourced, forcing some lawyers to have unreasonably high caseloads and to work unreasonable hours, reducing their capacity for self-care and increasing their risk of compassion fatigue.” He says compassion fatigue shares some overlap with burnout, but the conditions differ because burnout lacks a caring component.

Dr Stephen Tang, a psychologist, honorary lecturer at ANU College of Law and former lawyer, says the prevalence of compassion fatigue among Australian lawyers is unknown and the phenomenon under-researched. He believes individual personality factors often interact with professional demands and a lack of support at an organisational level to increase the risk.

“Certain people are drawn to more compassion-forward areas of the law because of their personality, values and experiences,” he says. “While this is a good thing, there’s very little preparation in legal education and practice about how the personal can meet the professional in a healthy, sustainable way. 

“Compassion fatigue can easily emerge, for example, where a highly motivated new lawyer with altruistic and social justice-oriented motivations gives too much of themselves too quickly without the requisite holding, support and boundaries that are needed to make this a viable endeavour.”

Compassion fatigue can easily emerge, for example, where a highly motivated new lawyer with altruistic and social justice-oriented motivations gives too much of themselves too quickly without the requisite boundaries that are needed to make this a viable endeavour.

Poor mental health

“Compassion fatigue has a cascading negative effect on mental health and wellbeing,” Dr Tang says. Immediate effects include a reduced capacity to be present and respond effectively to clients, colleagues and people outside of work. Lucas says a sense of social isolation and disconnection from people and the world around you can also occur. Alcohol and drug use to alleviate symptoms have also been reported among lawyers.

Over the longer term, “the withdrawal, avoidance, cynicism and sense of personal or professional uselessness that tends to come with compassion fatigue can result in lasting changes in beliefs, attitudes and behaviours which lead to further reductions in vitality, work and life satisfaction,” says Dr Tang. 

In turn, this can create or exacerbate vulnerabilities for other mental health problems like depression, anxiety and secondary or vicarious trauma – the stress resulting from helping a traumatised or suffering person.

“Compassion fatigue is likely a significant reason behind the well-documented poor mental health of lawyers, especially of those working in the human service areas of high need and low resources,” Dr James says.

Strength in numbers

What can be done to reduce the risk of compassion fatigue? Dr James says becoming educated about compassion fatigue and “trauma informed” is an important first step. “This includes having a basic understanding of trauma theory, including the common sources, causes, symptoms and effects of stress that can lead to compassion fatigue, and appropriate strategies for self-care.”

Employers also play a key role. In much the same way as the healthcare industry uses clinical supervision, Dr James says lawyers working in high-risk areas should be adequately supervised by trauma-informed senior leaders. “All lawyers, especially young or inexperienced lawyers, need to be monitored and counselled regularly by their supervisor, who ensures they’re not working too much, that they have a variety of cases, and that they have the opportunity to discuss particularly stressful cases and how they’re feeling about work generally.”

Likewise, Dr Tang says facilitating a network of supportive coaches, mentors and colleagues can help promote compassion satisfaction – the satisfying feeling derived from helping others– and manage compassion fatigue.

“It’s important that lawyers can access senior colleagues or those with sufficient experience and a healthy level of detachment,” he says. “These people are more likely to be able to appraise the lawyer’s experiences realistically and compassionately, rather than be drawn into or even amplify the negativity, despair or helplessness that they feel.”

Importantly, Dr Tang says, “as a profession, we need to recognise that compassion is an integral part of legal professionalism, not just an optional personal quality or something that’s relegated to that ugly term ‘soft skill’”.